story by Tetsu Kariya; art by Akira Hanasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
After an introductory volume on general Japanese cuisine, this manga series starts specializing with an edition on Japan’s best-known alcoholic drink and other wines.
As part of his planning for his newspaper’s Ultimate Menu, journalist Yamaoka explores drinks to go with the food. Lots of preconceptions are corrected, starting with the idea that sake can’t be as good as the best French wines. An argument is made that if well-made sake with no additives is handled as well as wine, kept from light and heat, it can taste as good.
Reading this volume, I learned a ton! I knew a little about Japanese food, but all I knew about sake was that you’re not supposed to pour it for yourself. As various characters are educated, I followed along their journey to appreciate and respect Japanese alcoholic drinks. Often, there’s a component of learning to value their country and culture in the face of global competition; frequently, the target of correction is those who are “over-Westernized”.
One liquor connoisseur spends much of his time drunk out of embarrassment for his country; his disdain for fruity cocktails is matched by Yamaoka’s contempt for the critic’s lack of knowledge about aged spirits. A duck-hunting story demonstrates how fads are foolish to follow. Aging results in tastier food and drink, in some cases, and rich men should take the advice of those who know more than they. They’re taught to avoid showing off and bragging; instead, they learn that the classics are classic for good reason.
One particularly interesting tale concerns a newspaper executive who turns down a promotion that would send him to France because he can’t stand champagne! He’s quickly shown the error of his ways, of course, complete with lessons on how champagne is made.
As in the first volume, the art is … not the draw. The manga style will seem old-fashioned to many readers. Characters have simple, open faces exaggerated during emotional moments. The content is primarily carried through the dialogue, as arguments and speeches make points about the importance of Japanese food and culture.
The second half of the book is one long story about how Japanese relate to sake. Some are prejudiced against “something old drunks” drink; others don’t pay attention to what they drink with particular dishes. Yamaoka sets out to remove their preconceptions, replacing them with surprising assertions. One in particular is that no wine goes well with caviar or seafood, because the alcohol’s sodium content makes the dishes taste too fishy, but sake suits that type of food well. (I’m eager to try this myself, if I can find a good sake.)
The journalists also set up a number of tastings and save a small brewery from going under to an unscrupulous competitor. Because the chapters are chosen from the over 25 years the original series has been running in Japan, the messages can occasionally be repetitious, but that just emphasizes how strongly Yamaoka feels about, for example, how wrong the shortcuts taken by big companies are. The characters learn to value the creations of local craftsmen who respect their ingredients, not the huge, popular firms with big ad budgets who are driven only by profit margin. It’s all a big debate over the future of sake in Japan.
Next up, Ramen (noodles) and Gyoza (dumplings), followed by the much-anticipated-by-me Fish, Sushi, and Sashimi. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)